Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Convention

The Midwest Booksellers Association Convention (previously known as UMBA), takes place every fall at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, or some other similarly large and un-cozy location. It’s presumed purpose (and who am I to challenge it?) is to allow booksellers to gear up for the holiday season by making direct and immediate contact with distributors and publishers so as to become more familiar with their fall lists. It also allows booksellers and distributors to hobnob with their colleagues and competitors from around the region in a collegial atmosphere. Free books are available in moderate quantities, sometimes signed by authors, who are also often present at breakfasts, luncheons, interview spots, and signings throughout the weekend, at the behest of the convention organizers or their own publishers.

In recent years I have attended quite a few such conventions, for no other purpose than to set up the booth of the publisher I often work for, Nodin Press, or to take it down again at the end of the following day. I usually don’t linger long, but this year I stuck around almost from beginning to end, though I'm neither a publisher nor a bookstore owner nor a buyer nor an author of any reputation myself. It’s not for the sake of the books themselves. It seems that I somewhat enjoy reconnecting with old book buddies and making new ones.

For such hangers-on as myself (of which, let me assure you, there are a sizable contingent at this event), the challenge lies in passing an entire day within the environs or three or four aisles without boring any of the principals overmuch or stealing time from their job at hand, which is to present their new books to genuine customers. Of course, I also spent a good deal of time at the Nodin Press booth helping my friend Norton, who owns the company. It’s always a pleasure to work (and mostly just gab) there alongside Richard Stegal, another former colleague from the Bookmen.

Among the highlights of the morning’s interactions out on the floor I might mention the discussion I had with Erik Anderson of the U of M Press about its new coffee-table book on Finnish saunas. (Also about their attractive new promotional coffee cup, which I gather he had a hand in designing.) Erik’s an affable young fellow with strong connections to the North Shore, whose post seemed to be at the corner of the aisle, deflecting gadflies like me from the more serious business going on deeper within the booth.

I also enjoyed chatting with one of the grand old men of Wisconsin letters, Jerry Apps, about the mixed blessing of having four new books coming out from different publishers in the same year. He has been active at various times in his career in both academia and the publishing world, not to mention a stint as a county agent, and he’s also taught creative writing for forty years. During that time he’s written a sizable number of books about barns and cheese and horse-drawn vehicles, as well a few novels. “I also write poetry,” he told me, semi-confidentially, “but it’s nothing special. I sometimes work it into a novel as the poems a character has written. I’m making fun of it, really.”

The Nodin Press booth sits cheek by jowl with that of Adventure Distribution, which actually sells Norton’s books, and it’s always fun to catch up with Jody about her children’s hockey careers and her husband’s Iowa-based wholesale organic grain business. I also chatted with Adventure’s marketing director Bo about the beautiful National Geographic maps they’ve started carrying, and how difficult it is to make field guides for a state like California, which has such a wide range of environments.

Down at the Minnesota Historical Society Press I ran into another old friend, Peg Meier, who has just come out with a new book about children, Wishing for a Snow Day.

“I hear you’re going to do a book with Gail Rosenblum,” she said as I was plopping myself down on a chair beside her. “How did that come about?”
“I believe Gail made an appointment with Norton, showed him her stuff, and he liked it. She told me it was like a dream.”
I’ve known Peg since the days when Bring Warm Clothes was a hot new title and she would stop by the Bookmen loading dock at least once a week with a fresh supply. She later wrote a lengthy and generous review for the Strib of the first book I edited, O Clouds Unfold! by local literary giantess Brenda Ueland. Our paths often cross at the Twin Cities Film Festival. She’s currently working on another interesting project—editing a diary she found in the MHS archives of a young woman who later donated her house to the state. It’s now the governor’s mansion.
Brett and Sheila Waldman were exuding energy and good cheer from the center of the central aisle throughout the day, and a few booths down the way Bill Roth commanded a lengthy table in front of a giant Ingram banner. Bill and I go way back, to the days when his son Adam (who recently emerged from law school into the cruel workaday world) was an infant in a car seat staring over at the intruder (me) scrunched beside him in the back seat of Bill’s little red Datsun station wagon. Those were the days of $3.00-an-hour wages and a 1972 butterscotch Volvo with four cylinders topped by two very finicky carburetors, which often sat idle on the street in front of our apartment on Bryant Square.

Now here we were, decades later, discussing his wide-ranging (and ever-changing) sales territory. “I lost Montana but picked up Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is a reading state.”
“Well, you’ve got the Tattered Cover in Denver,” I replied, trying to sound knowledgeable. “And I suppose there are some Christian bookshops in Colorado Springs.”
“But Durango!” he said. “There’s a lot going on down there.”
He also offered up a new slant on the Kindle. “When I go over to someone’s house, I like to see their books. It gives me some insight into what they’re like, who they are. If all of your books are on a Kindle, what are you going to see? Nothing!” Bill has been to my house a few times. He knows he’s preaching to the choir.

Rounding a corner on one occasion late in the afternoon, I came upon Marly Cornell dipping the last piece of an oversized pretzel into a tub of mustard. She told me aout a few of her projects that are in the works. On down the way Sybil Smith shared a few insights about the technology of ebooks, on which subject she is now an expert, and Stanley Gordon West told me about his new contract with Algonquin. “They’re going to reissue Blind Your Ponies,” he told me. “I’ve already sold forty thousand copies on my own, but they’re going to redesign it and get it into markets in the South that I haven’t touched.”

Among the more interesting new acquaintances I made that day was that of the rep from Trim Distributors, a tall, elderly gentleman from Chicago whose name I never caught. Trim distributes university presses, and I tactlessly brought up the academic remainder firm Labyrinth; he thought I was talking about a used bookstore in Manhattan, and at that point the conversation really got interesting. I averted my eyes from Foucault’s The History of Madness, a fat red volume lying face up on the display table as a bookend, and we agreed that it did make a good bookend. I expressed an interest in Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry, standing on its side among other titles in the row, and he said, “You’re the only person in this building who would be interested in that.” He agreed to swap me at the end of the day for a Nodin Press title, and we settled on a mystery anthology, The Silence of the Loons.

Back at the Nodin booth, I got the opportunity to meet Becky Oatman, the author of The Lindsay Whalen Story, who’d arrived to sign some books. We’d emailed each other back and forth perhaps two hundred times in the course of the summer, while trying to whip her book into shape, and it was nice to chat face-to-face at last. We took a stroll down the aisles together and struck up a conversation with Fred Lauing, the sales manager of the University of Wisconsin Press, whom I’d met the previous evening at a wine-and-cheese soirĂ©e. On that occasion we’d gotten into a discussion of why the keys on a typewriter (invented in Wisconsin, don’t you know?) were not arranged in an order to maximize convenience and efficiency, and also explored the interesting fact that all parts of Wisconsin west of Eau Claire might as well be in Minnesota. Fred used to live in River Falls, and Becky currently lives in a very small town east of Eau Claire, so they were in a good position to tackle that issue. But the conversation soon drifted toward the fascinating subject of what living in a small town is really like, what the people there actually do for a living, and how come the produce in small-town grocery stores is so bad. Fred also knows a good deal about geology, and before long he was describing the drumlin fields of southwestern Wisconsin in poetic detail.
Near the end of the day, as people were beginning to pack up, I made a final sweep down the aisles and stopped for the first time at the Graywolf booth, where four your women (two of them might have been from Milkweed) were sitting in a row like unpopular (though far from homely) girls at a high school dance. Two of them leapt to their feet immediately with almost exaggerated energy, as if I’d released them from a fairy tale spell, and came over to chat. My eye eventually fell on the new book by Per Petterson, whose writing I truly admire. We discussed Out Stealing Horses, In The Wake, and why To Siberia didn’t have quite the same appeal (too many Danish street names). Before I had a chance to utter the fatal request (Can I have this?) one of them saved me from that embarrassment by saying, “That’s a display copy, but we’ll be glad to send you one if you’ll fill out this form.” Suddenly they reminded me of the very popular musical duo from Finland, The Polka Chicks.

I didn’t fare quite so well at the Consortium booth opposite, where I immediately got off on the wrong foot by unceremoniously blurting out, “Where’s Bill?” I was referring to another old friend, Bill Mochler, who works for the firm. Ruth Burger, the thin young woman with short, copper-colored hair and a miniscule ornament in her nostril to whom I had addressed that remark, replied, trying to hide her annoyance, “You mean Bill Mochler? He’s not here today.”

Once we’d gotten past that gaff I told her how much I liked the kinds of things Consortium handles—edgy European fiction and poetry. I glanced at a few obscure paperbacks, and then made my second faux pas. “How many of these titles have you actually read?” I asked her.

It was an innocent question. I’m a slow reader myself, and, to paraphrase a remark by Montaigne, “It’s been many years since I spent more than an hour with any book.” Consortium is a distributor, not a publisher, so it could easily happen that a marketing rep might arrive at work one morning to find that her firm had just taken on another “list” and she suddenly has forty new titles to become familiar with. Yes, it was an innocent question, but how was Ruth to know that? She looked at me with a slightly shocked expression, as if she’d been affronted, and said, “I’ve read this one, and this one, and this one,” shaking the individual books vigorously in their little stands on the table one after another, and then looking for further examples.

“Hold off. I’m very impressed,” I said to her. “I can’t imagine how you could keep up with it all. Could you name a current favorite?”

She directed me to The Twin, by the Dutch novelist Gerbrand Bakker. “It’s quiet, but it really sucks you in,” she said.

I stood staring at the picture on the cover for a few minutes—a photo of four distant cows on a very flat landscape covered with water, with white clouds above. The photo was taken with a fish-eye lens, and it exuded expansiveness and silence and perhaps monotony. Even the cover sucked you in.
At that point I took the third strike, as the words came tumbling out of my mouth. “Can I have this?”, though I knew the answer full well already.
“That’s a display copy, but make a mental note of the title, and the publisher,” she said. “They’re issuing a lot of good things in translation these days.” And off she went.
What this little recount fails to convey, I’m afraid, is that throughout our exchange, Ruth was actually trying with all her heart to be nice.

And speaking of nice. For as long as I have been attending these events, the top slot in my heart has been reserved for the duo from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Kate Thompson and Kathy Borkowski. We became acquainted so many years ago I no longer remember the date. Richard Stegal and I were sitting at a table chowing down appetizers prior to one of those fascinating yet tedious writer’s dinners they no longer hold, and Kate and Kathy were looking for a place to sit. I invited them to join us, we struck up a conversation—and although our paths cross only once a year, it seems we’ve been chatting ever since. Their personalities are different, needless to say, but both are bright, considerate, good natured, curious, and wry. They’re also very professional. (Don’t get them started on endpapers: you’ll drive them into a tizzy.) You can see this commitment in the books they produce.

Yet I wouldn’t include Kate and Kathy among those bibliophiles for whom the printed book is a temple of exquisite typography and design, with content a matter of secondary concern. They take the press’s mission seriously: to tell the story of Wisconsin history. Many of the writers they draw upon are professionals, of course, but they’re no less interested in bringing important aspects of Wisconsin history to light through the experience and research of ordinary citizens with something unusual to share. Though these goals are not dissimilar from the ones Nodin Press pursues, to be frank, I don’t think much about such things when I’m at the WHS booth. Kate and Kathy are simply a lot of fun to be around.

As the day winds to a close and everyone starts to “break down” their booths in a state of exhausted relief, the question looms—whether or not to attend the final cash-bar book-signing frenzy where publishers (red badge), book-buyers (blue badge), and hanger’s on (black badge), are all welcome to congregate, chat, and gather books freely from the authors positioned behind the signing tables scattered throughout the reception hall.
It sounds like fun. Yet as I stood in front of the cash bar, I refrained from ordering anything. “First,” I said to the bartender, “I ought to see if there’s anyone here I really want to talk to.” Scanning the room, I saw very few faces I recognized, and none whose ear I hadn’t bent already. It was time to go home.

I had reached the lobby when Norton rounded the corner in the company of mystery-writer Kent Krueger, whom we’ve worked with on a few anthologies. Kent’s new book, Vermilion Drift, is doing well. We shook hands and he rushed ahead to the signing tables. “I saw your review in the Times,” I shouted as he vanished from sight.
Norton, his SUV fully loaded with posters and books from the booth, had found a good parking spot out in front of the Ordway and wandered back to enjoy the convention wrap-up, so I returned to the hall with him. By this time the room had filled considerably, mostly with people lining up in front of the signing tables. I stood in line in front of the bar next to Kathy Borkowsi and while we were waiting our turn I tossed a vague query her way and she began to tell me something about the upcoming Great Lakes convention.
“I don’t want to hear any more about books,” I said. “Tell me something new about you.”
“Well, my partner and I are going to Morocco in a few weeks.”
Wow. That sounded exciting. “My wife and I have been to Spain a few times,” I said, “but I’ve only seen Morocco from Tarifa on the opposite shore. It’s about an inch off the horizon, purple with mountains. Very alluring.”

They’ll be travelling with a guide they found through some chefs in Madison, Kathy told me, staying with the guide’s sister for a few days, learning some regional dishes. Learning how to fluff couscous the right way, I suspect. She was boning up on her French.“I asked the guide how many people were on the tour,” she said. “‘Just you two,’ the man replied.”

When we got to the front of the line the bartender said to me, “I see you’re back,” which might have given my Wisconsin friends the idea that I’d already downed a few. No matter. A few minutes later, Kate, Bill and I were chatting, and I expressed a mild astonishment that so much honest effort had been expended that day to advance the printed word. Kate shot back: “That’s what I like about you. You’re so optimistic.” For a split second I wasn’t sure if she was making fun of me, but she assured me she wasn’t. “I was feeling sort of blue this afternoon at how much this convention has shrunk over the years,” she said, “and here you are, amazed at all the energy.”

I suppose I haven’t been coming long enough see the changes. But it might also be that, for better or worse, I’m not overly concerned about selling books. One book in the right hands is a miracle of communication—though it’s not going to pay the bills.

By the time the event finally ended I’d stood in a few book-lines myself, and I arrived home with my bag moderately loaded. Four of the six I brought home have roots in the north country. News to Me, Star-Tribune books editor Laurie Herzel’s memoir, is set largely in Duluth; both Kent Krueger’s Vermilion Drift and Legarde Grover’s book of Indian tales from the Boise Fort reservation, The Dance Boots, take place on Minnesota’s Iron Range; and Season of Water and Ice, a novel by newcomer Donald Lystra, is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (I’d chatted with Lystra earlier in the day at the signing table about Jim Harrison’s nifty little novel, Farmer, also set in the UP. ) I got the fifth title, A Short History of Wisconsin, in a swap with Kate for my own recent book of tales, Vacation Days. And down there in the bottom of the bag, for balance and contrast, I guess, was The Culture Industry by good old Theodor Adorno.

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